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Are you a 'jazz nerd'? Jason Marsalis revisits and clarifies the term

June 15, 2010 |  2:47 pm

Marsalis300 In the wake of causing a minor firestorm in the online jazz community last month with a playful video decrying the influence of "jazz nerds," drummer Jason Marsalis e-mailed me a clarification this morning that both expands on the definition, shares his inspiration for the video and offers further talking points that amount to a calling for a truce in the so-called Jazz Wars.

As a few commenters on the post argued, the crux of Marsalis' issue with so-called jazz nerds isn't necessarily the use of complicated structure, multi-genre influences or odd meter (citing his own work with adventurous young saxophonist John Ellis as an example, a point also made by by Pop and Hiss commenter nash61ce). In one part of a four-page statement, Marsalis argues that his point was a question of adding those elements without a working knowledge of jazz's rich history and instead opting for complexity for complexity's sake in composition.

"[A jazz nerd, or JNA for short] will hear groups lead by Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter and will marvel at the complex musical structure but ignore the historical substance behind their music. JNA saxophonists will listen to and worship the music of Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, and other modern players but ignore the musicians that have influenced their music such as John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Warne Marsh, and Sonny Rollins.

JNA will hear the music of James Brown and say that it’s no big deal because it only has two chords. JNA looks down on blues as 'simple' while wanting to play endless non-melodic eighth and sixteenth notes over 'All the Things You Are' in 7/4 straight feel. By the way, a slow blues is boring. Better yet, swing is actually uninteresting and straight feel is actually more 'challenging' and 'exciting.' Instead of embracing both, the JNA worships one while ridiculing the other. Speaking of that, 4/4 is 'old' while 9/8, on the other hand, is 'new.' A basic drum groove is boring unless you fill it with lots of notes. To the JNA, that’s modern music. So to recapitulate, JNA reduces music to as many complex notes as possible while ignoring the simple elements and history behind the notes. This kind of music will have audience members sitting on their hands suffering boredom."

Interestingly, Marsalis goes on to argue against what he believes is another troubling trend in modern jazz,   "innovation propaganda." Couched in part as a defense of the "young lions" counter-revolution of the 1980s that celebrated jazz of the 1950s and '60s (a movement vigorously championed by his family), Marsalis writes, "Starting from 2000 up to now, the majority of today’s music started to reference rock, hip-hop, pop, R&B, and world music. That’s great except there’s a catch. Almost NO music before 1990 is referenced in the majority of music played today."

More, including the full text of Marsalis' statement after the jump.

While the idea that the "majority" of contemporary jazz disregards Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and the entirety of the jazz firmament sounds like a stretch, Marsalis' overall tone with regard to the modern versus  "neoclassicist" "jazz wars" is one that advocates for inclusion from both sides.

"Here’s the reality about music. Genres are neutral, all music is old and music is information. The 20th century has produced lots of music. Rather than dividing it up with categories like 'traditional' and 'modern' or 'old' and 'new,' it should be viewed as a century worth of information.

There’s information in Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Cecil Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Weather Report, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Genesis, Nirvana, Common, John Legend just to name a few. Hundreds upon thousands of artists in numerous genres were left out, but the point is this music is all available for any musician to employ, or be employed rather.

There are those that complain of narrowing music through categories. My complaint is about narrowing music through dates. There’s information that can be incorporated in music from 1900 to 2000 in today’s context. Jazz is an open architecture that includes everything from genres to history."

Couldn't have said it better myself, actually. Ultimately, as one who is a strong advocate for the first of the "innovation kool-aid" principles that Marsalis later lists in his statement -- "Jazz has to move forward into the future" (and I'd wager that Marsalis values that point as well) -- the question of whether a so-called traditionalist or so-called modernist perspective is the best way to move jazz into the future isn't a question at all. All sides of the music, every influence, artistic whim and sonic preference are welcome and worthy of consideration. That sort of freedom is what keeps jazz so vital in the first place.

There's plenty of food for thought throughout Marsalis' statement -- give it a read and weigh in with your thoughts. He ends the piece by writing, "I'm glad we are having this conversation," and I have to agree.

-- Chris Barton

The Definition of a Jazz Nerd

I’ve been lucky to grow up as a privileged musician. I’ve been surrounded by a considerable amount of information and various influences from different genres of music. As a high school and college student, jazz students I knew were very knowledgeable about music and hungry for even more. Then in the early 2000s, something happened. While performing with some of the new jazz students relocating to the New Orleans area, I noticed something missing in their music. As I became familiar with their compositions and solo performances, my suspicions were confirmed; while their music was often complex with a different mood, it was unfortunately lacking in knowledge of the jazz tradition.

These musicians did not take sufficient time to investigate jazz before 1990, nor did they have a belief in that music. I then realized that these musicians did not have many opportunities to play outside of the classroom situation. Therefore, playing jazz for an audience was not part of their musical experience. As I traveled the country, I began seeing this as a trend. Jazz students would play an abundance of notes in an abstract manner without an understanding of basic melodic content.

During this time, I overheard a musician describe hearing music in which musicians played notes and patterns over complex chord changes as “nerd music”. That term struck a chord with me because that was the same thing I was hearing from college students, and some professional musicians, around the country. At that moment I realized the trend that was happening with jazz music and I coined the phrase “JNA,” the Jazz Nerds of America. 

As I traveled to Europe and Canada, I discovered common attitudes were pertinent to my observations. Jazz musicians in both countries said the same thing is happening with music students in their respective regions. At this point I’m getting notoriously disturbed about the new music I’ve been hearing. Finally, in a conversation with my father, he told me of a set he attended at a New York jazz club and heard music that I would describe as being played by JNA members. He noticed that the band members had their heads buried in the music and made no eye contact with the audience. He also observed a very attentive audience working hard to like what they were hearing. Basically, instead of enjoying the music, they were expending energy in an attempt to connect with what was being played. Marsalis400

At this point I decided, as a bandleader, to warn the jazz audience about the JNA. When I would tell my story, it would be part musician/part raving street preacher to elicit laughs from the audience. I would advise them to run away from “nerd music” as fast as they can. One night in Toronto, I told my JNA story to the audience and Keita Hopkinson, someone who was helping put together the show, wanted to film my rant on his iPhone. I agreed and he posted it on YouTube.

I recently received a phone call from band mate and pianist Marcus Roberts and he mentioned that he  received an e-mail about my “jazz nerd” video and that it was getting a lot of attention over the Internet. I did a Google search on Jazz Nerd International and lots of entries appeared. It was humorous that JNA was getting this much attention. The articles were also interesting reads. The only troublesome aspect was that my views were misconstrued and misdirected into another conversation contrary to what the video was about. Some of the blame falls on me because a lot of the musical examples presented in the video were done in a vague fashion. This is why I have decided to write an essay to explain what my problem with the “jazz nerd” is all about.

Let’s define a jazz nerd. A jazz nerd, or JNA for short, is a jazz student who reduces all music to notes and concepts only. JNA worships complexity while ridiculing simplicity. JNA will hear groups lead by Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter and will marvel at the complex musical structure but ignore the historical substance behind their music. JNA saxophonists will listen to and worship the music of Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, and other modern players but ignore the musicians that have influenced their music such as John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Warne Marsh, and Sonny Rollins. JNA will hear the music of James Brown and say that it’s no big deal because it only has two chords. JNA looks down on blues as “simple” while wanting to play endless non-melodic eighth and sixteenth notes over “All the Things You Are” in 7/4 straight feel. By the way, a slow blues is boring. Better yet, swing is actually uninteresting and straight feel is actually more “challenging” and “exciting.” Instead of embracing both, the JNA worships one while ridiculing the other. Speaking of that, 4/4 is “old” while 9/8, on the other hand, is “new.” A basic drum groove is boring unless you fill it with lots of notes. To the JNA, that’s modern music. So to recapitulate, JNA reduces music to as many complex notes as possible while ignoring the simple elements and history behind the notes. This kind of music will have audience members sitting on their hands suffering boredom.

Now, I must make a brief statement about odd meters. In the infamous video, it seemed as though I was attacking odd meters. Anyone that knows my music would rightfully label that hypocrisy. It isn’t the time signatures I was attacking but rather the highly indifferent approach JNA would employ in the name of creating music. They play all odd meters the same way, straight and medium-to-fast. They’re not interested in bringing a variety of grooves and mood to odd meters. Furthermore, a jazz nerd will have music that will modulate from 5/4 to 9/8 to 7/4 in a matter of measures while playing a barrage of notes that make no sense. Therefore, as an audience member you actually can’t tell what the band is playing since there’s no clarity of chord movement or rhythm. This approach to odd meters can work, as exemplified by tenor saxophonist John Ellis’ composition “Bonus Round,” but cluttering the space doesn’t help the music. The music student has fun but the audience has nothing with which to connect and therefore is sitting on their hands, again.

As far as today’s music is concerned, I do have a problem with another trend that isn’t exclusive to the JNA, but it affects jazz music, and JNA members usually believe in it. It’s what I call “innovation propaganda.” It is rooted in the fact that starting in the 1980s and through the '90s, there were jazz musicians interested in the history of the music. They wanted to explore jazz music from the '50s and '60s, a period of music that their generation hadn’t previously explored. While there was an audience for this music, there were jazz writers and musicians who excoriated them as “neoclassicists” who were bringing jazz backwards and were not moving the music forward. However, starting from 2000 up to now, the majority of today’s music started to reference rock, hip-hop, pop, R&B, and world music. That’s great except there’s a catch. Almost NO music before 1990 is referenced in the majority of music played today. But if you don’t study the history of jazz, or music for that matter, the good news is that you have an out clause. Jazz magazines and writers created this flavor of kool-aid named “innovation,” and when a musician drinks “innovation kool-aid,” you believe the following principles:

1. Jazz has to move forward into the future.

2. We can’t get stuck in the past with hero worship.

3. Swing is old and dated. We have to use the music of today.

4. Jazz is limiting. You must take a chance by bringing in current styles.

5. I don’t care about the past. I have to do my own thing.

6. We’re past playing American songbook standards. That’s yesterday’s music.

These principals sound as though they have the best of intentions, but what I’ve found is that this point of view actually mirrors the same narrow-minded point of view that the “traditionalists” are being accused of. “Traditionalists,” apparently, are only interested in music from 1900-1969. With the majority of the new music, music after 1969, and sometimes 1999, is the only period of interest. Here’s the reality about music. Genres are neutral, all music is old and music is information. The 20th century has produced lots of music. Rather than dividing it up with categories like “traditional” and “modern” or “old” and “new,” it should be viewed as a century worth of information. There’s information in Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Cecil Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Weather Report, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy, Genesis, Nirvana, Common, John Legend just to name a few. Hundreds upon thousands of artists in numerous genres were left out, but the point is this music is all available for any musician to employ, or be employed rather. There are those that complain of narrowing music through categories. My complaint is about narrowing music through dates. There’s information that can be incorporated in music from 1900 to 2000 in today’s context. Jazz is an open architecture that includes everything from genres to history.

In closing, there are those who wonder why do I bother? Why am I so outspoken about music? Why not let the music speak for itself? Why am I wasting my time with this subject instead of practicing? Well, I’ve been inspired by music for many years from all walks of life, and to be honest, I’m bored with the majority of the new music being played today. Newer musicians are being selfish by not including a wide range of history and only thinking of themselves over the music. But there’s a bigger problem; I’m not alone. Earlier, I mentioned that jazz had a larger audience with music that was apparently “retrogressive.” Now, today’s music is hailed by some as pushing jazz into the future, but guess what? The audience has dwindled and there are magazine articles asking if the music is dead. Furthermore, the response to my “jazz nerd” video is interesting because there are musicians who disagree with me, but not as many non-musically trained jazz fans share the same view. They’re collectively known as the audience, remember? The fact is that the jazz audience could care less whether any music is “new” or “innovative.” The audience pays their hard-earned money to hear a good show. I’ve talked to many audience members who feel the exact same way I do and are just as frustrated as I am with most of the new music. The problem is that because of “innovation propaganda,” they feel guilty if they don’t like the music. They feel that it’s their fault for not understanding the “intellectual capacity” of it, so they work hard at trying to enjoy the music when they aren’t in the first place. This, in my view, is part of the reason why the jazz audience is getting smaller.

Is there a way to solve this problem? The only solution I have is to restructure the academic curriculum in university programs to be inclusive of all music and introduce students in elementary school, 4th through 12th grades, to music studies. The best thing for a musician to do is not to divide music by years or genres, but by basing it on at least a century’s worth of information. The more, the merrier. Where this will take the music, we shall see. But this approach of unity is more intriguing than division and jazz music can truly grow into the 21st century. In the meantime, I would like to thank those who have commented on my impromptu video and I’m glad we are having this conversation.

-- Jason Marsalis

Pictured: Top: Jason Marsalis in 1997, photo by Los Angeles Times; Marsalis onstage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2010, photo by Rick Diamond / Getty Images

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